Our country is facing a conundrum. Right now, 11.3 million people are in the market for a good job. Government and business are searching for ways to put Americans back to work while unemployment remains stubbornly high. And employers are desperately seeking individuals with the skills to fill nearly 4 million open jobs. Current projections indicate this gap between skills needed and talent available will widen in the near future.
One short-term solution: Bring back apprenticeships in the U.S.
For centuries, apprenticeships have been a proven way to develop a skilled workforce and build a strong working class while generating broad prosperity. Developed nations such as Germany, France and Spain have done just that and are continuing to do so. But in the U.S., the apprentice may be most widely known as a reality television show. The concept of apprenticeships was abandoned decades ago when the nation’s focus shifted to white-collar jobs and four-year college degrees.
Apprenticeships, I believe, must have a place in today’s workforce. With major challenges like the skills gap and Boomer brain drain looming ever larger, apprenticeships serve as a bridge for transferring knowledge, a training opportunity and an effective talent management strategy to get the job done.
There are many benefits of the apprenticeship model.
For individuals, apprenticeships open minds and doors to high-demand careers. They provide invaluable on-the-job training under the tutelage of experienced professionals. And they’re an opportunity to earn a salary while learning—a make-or-break proposition for those who could not or would not pursue professional development without it.
Apprenticeship programs are also good for employers. They’re a way to build a custom-trained workforce, transfer knowledge from one generation to the next and achieve bottom-line benefits ranging from higher employee engagement to better recruitment to stronger retention.
Finally, apprenticeships are a Swiss Army knife solution for a host of national challenges: developing a workforce equipped for 21st-century jobs, tackling unemployment among youth and other disproportionately affected segments, and boosting the nation’s overall economic competitiveness.
Despite these benefits, U.S. apprenticeships are in short supply. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in 2012 there were fewer than 360,000 apprentices nationwide, many of them in construction and manufacturing. The findings of a 2011 study published in Industrial Maintenance and Plant Operation magazine underscore the point: Although there were 12 million manufacturing jobs in the U.S., there were only 18,000 manufacturing apprenticeships—equivalent to just over a tenth of 1 percent of that workforce.
Apprenticeships work beyond manufacturing and blue-collar jobs, as well. Some European countries have expanded the model to additional industries, building pipelines to careers in technology, nursing, finance and more.
Like our counterparts across the globe, the U.S. should invest more in this time-tested training model, think more creatively about expanding it to new industries and careers, and consider it more seriously as an entry point into today’s workforce and a viable alternative to address the underskilled labor market.
The U.S. apprenticeship is an idea whose time has come—again. It’s also a strategy that we, as HR professionals, are uniquely qualified and need to lead.